Skip to main content

Board game puts Amazon resource management to the test

June 14, 2010

A role-playing game that uses multiple colors and squares to represent different landscapes has been developed by researchers to study the forced human migration of farmers to a remote Amazon jungle region of Colombia. The game examines land use decisions and survival techniques of local farmers in this largely ungoverned region. It was the first such study conducted in Colombia.

The results of this study are in the journal Environmental Modelling & Software. The article is available here. The research is a collaborative effort of scientists from Arizona State University, Javeriana University, Bogota, and the French Agricultural Research for Development, Montpellier, France.

“Farmers migrated to the Amazon from the Andes Mountains due to socio-economic reasons or armed conflict,” said Daniel Castillo, the article’s co-author and a research scholar at ASU’s Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity, a member of the Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems. “The Amazon was largely untapped and the fertilized land offered migrants an opportunity to create a better life. One of the more interesting findings we discovered was that the farmers needed to make money when they arrived to the area so they initially planted temporary small patches of illegal crops to generate income. This was quite a common pattern.”

Castillo said the farmers grew coca, the primary ingredient for making cocaine, and sold the substance to the local armed forces or drug smugglers for a substantial profit. He added that the money the farmers earned from harvesting coca provided them with the resources to start a cattle raising business, a lucrative and legal endeavor desired by many farmers because it offered more stability.

Six peasant farmers, or colonos, participated in the role-playing game. Each farmer was given a plot of land divided into numerous squares; each square represented approximately two acres. The land included forests, grasslands, stubble, crops, water bodies and horses.

The game was created based on the analysis of satellite images of the Amazon from 1988-2001 and represented deforestation of the Amazon region as a result of land use decisions caused by the establishment of pastures for raising cattle.

Each player had to make decisions based on several criteria: the establishment of pastures; the decision to transform land cover to pasture; maintaining pastures; establishing crops; and conserving forest plots.

The game spanned a four-year period. The players were given fictional money to purchase farming equipment to begin harvesting their land. To generate income, the farmers had to sell their products at the market.

Manuela Vieira Pak, co-author and researcher at the French Agricultural Research for Development said that throughout the role-playing game individual and collective decisions were identified, as were the factors that drive the land transformation dynamics. By analyzing the property dynamics, the players made common decisions for the management of their properties.

"The game became a tool for a dialogue with peasants and other actors such as bankers, traders and environmental authorities, on deforestation in an armed conflict zone,” Vieira Pak said. “We could observe how individual decisions affect collective deforestation, we could understand the dynamics of production systems in the region, and finally we identify the main factors driving the current landscape transformation. It was the first time a role-playing game was used in Colombia for complex systems analysis in natural resources management."

Castillo, who is also a professor at Javeriana University, said, “The game helped us to better understand the contextual factors that influence the decision-making of the colonos regarding land use, the direct decisions in land cover transformation at the individual property level and how they generated landscape dynamics in the region.”

He added that they will use the current data to develop an agent-based model allowing them to expand their research. With the new model, they will be able to increase the number of players and create multiple scenarios to see how the farmers respond to various environmental factors. The data they gather will help them determine the most effective land use decisions. They plan to provide their findings to the government agencies that oversee the Amazon region of Colombia.

Written by Scott Southward
(480) 965-4193
Consortium for Biosocial Complex Systems